Novel Readings

Most Seriously Displeased! Robert Hellenga’s The Sixteen Pleasures

I was very restrained in Hager Books on my recent trip to Vancouver: I picked out a modest two books there. One, Gift from the Sea, I chose because I’d heard so much about it. The other, Robert Hellenga’s The Sixteen Pleasures, I chose for the opposite reason: I’d never heard of it at all! That may seem like a risky strategy, and right now, when I reflect on my decision to put Rose Tremain’s Restoration back on the shelf and take The Sixteen Pleasures instead, I feel like an idiot. But I have felt betrayed by buzz often enough not to think that my having heard a lot about a book is any kind of guarantee that I’ll like it (cough cough The Woman Upstairs cough cough), and who doesn’t enjoy discovering a hidden gem? Also, there were four of Hellenga’s novels on the shelf, suggesting that somebody likes them, and not only does The Sixteen Pleasures sound interesting, but one of Hellenga’s other novels is a sequel to it — again, suggesting some kind of success.

Obviously, I’m leading up to some bad news here. I didn’t hate The Sixteen Pleasures, but it gave me very little pleasure. It was mildly interesting, especially the neepery about book binding and art restoration. But the main character’s story is a hodge-podge, her big romance is almost unbelievably dull, and the “sensual life-altering journey” the cover blurb announces that she’s on? I think I missed it.

There were some bits early on in a convent that seemed promising, and the premise — a quest begun by the discovery of a volume of erotic drawings from the Renaissance — also seems full of potential. But here’s what doesn’t happen: “Inspired to sample each of the ineffable sixteen pleasures, Margot embarks on the intrigue of a lifetime with a forbidden lover and the contraband volume.” Doesn’t that description make it sound like a kind of sexy, cerebral Eat, Pray, Love? But though that is the jacket copy, that does not describe the book at all. Margot does in fact experience some of the “pleasures” shown in the drawings. But there’s nothing like a quest to try them out, and they’re handled pretty perfunctorily. Then, nearly 300 pages into the book, Margot does decide that the book is “my handful of magic beans, it was my magic ring, my talisman” and that somehow it will help her figure out who she is and where she’s going. At that point there are 60 pages left and during them she does finally take charge and, I guess, decide who she is. She even has some kind of epiphany – a “mystical experience” – but it’s in the auction room at Sotheby’s and consists of her taking a big risk in order to drive up the price on the book. This is not the “sensual, life-altering journey of loss and rebirth” I was looking for.

If I sound uninspired about it, I really am, and I’m annoyed at having fallen for an unusual premise and some misleading if obviously effective marketing (who was it in the New Yorker that said “everything about the narrator and heroine of this novel is appealing,” anyway? and how dare Kirkus Reviews declare it “absolutely compelling”!). To think I could have been reading more Barbara Pym or Georgette Heyer instead.